sermon on John6:35,41-51; 1Kings19:4-8
This week, as four-year-old Henry Brezinski and I biked past each other, he said he wanted to come up on the stage and dip a pancake in the syrup. Maybe this sounds strange to you, but I realized he was talking about communion.
Young Henry’s reflection about this bread that looks like a pancake seems far from this reading with Jesus generating complaints by proclaiming, “the bread that I will give for the world is my flesh.” It begs that we slow down and approach this more cautiously.
This is a strange Bible reading. This stuff about eating flesh is just Jesus trying to point you to faith in God. Yet it’s a hard nut to crack, so we’re going to peel off the shell to examine the basic kernel. It gets at the same message Jesus shares, but maybe as spiritual milk instead of having to gnaw at the gristle.
To start, here are two terms: Word and Sacrament. In our understanding, this is how God gives you faith, how God communicates with you, how you know God’s will and receive God’s own self. I should probably say more often how important this is. It is essentially why I’m here: I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and you called me here and pay me to be your pastor so that you can receive Word and Sacrament, so that you’ve got a constant source of this connection to God. It means that even if you don’t like me or if you’ve done something truly awful or you have to be at the hospital ghastly early, you can still insist that I remind you of God’s forgiving grace and abundant life.
That’s also why it’s utterly vital that you should be here for worship. We don’t gather just to sing or chat together. This is our central gathering of Word and Sacrament. This is the fountain of it, the buffet’s feedtrough, the celebration just oozing gloriously with it. Nothing else can fully replace what we accomplish—or, better, what we receive—here in an hour. This is why it is also so disheartening that the past three weeks have had the lowest attendance of any non-blizzard Sundays in my time here. That hurts. It’s painful for me; it hurts us.
Aside from that, for my job and our identity as church, everything else is measured by or should be connected to Word and Sacrament—from shut-in visits to confirmation instruction, social gatherings to committee meetings. If this is what brings God to us, this is what we’re most supposed to be about.
So what is Word and Sacrament? What do we mean by it and how is God using it in your life?
First, the Word. This is God’s voice to you. In our understanding, God speaks in two ways: in Law and in Gospel. The law is how God wants you to live. Chances are, you hear that loud and clear enough that you feel guilty for not living up to it. The gospel, then, shouts over the top of that deafening voice with even more important good news: God forgives you, loves you unconditionally, sets you free from your bondage, breathes into you new life. The Word fills you with Jesus.
This voice of God speaking the Word we connect to Bible readings. But you should also be listening for God’s voice in each sermon. It’s in the declaration of forgiveness that starts the service. We sing it to each other in hymns. And it happens in “mutual conversation and consolation,” as Luther termed it, as we listen and reassure and forgive each other, which is one of the possible ways this happens outside of worship.
That’s a fast intro. Before we move on to Sacraments, let’s pause and see if there are any brief questions on Word…
Next, Sacraments. Sacrament, first of all, is a word that means “sacred thing” or “holy stuff.” The point of sacraments is an intensification of the Word. Instead of a blanket statement like, “Well God loves everybody,” sacraments give absolute confidence that God is talking to you. In this, we have two sacraments, fitting three criteria:
1: It needs stuff, an earthly element
2: It has the promise with it, it is embodying God’s good news
3: Jesus told us to do it
So let’s try out a couple of near misses:
Offering is not a sacrament. It has a physical sign, in your envelope or the offering plate. Jesus told us to give away our money. But it doesn’t have good news; it’s more of the law and what you’re supposed to do than what God is doing for you.
Again, being anointed with oil for healing is not a sacrament. It has a physical sign. It’s good news, a reminder that God strives for wellbeing and works healing in your life and relationships. But Jesus didn’t tell us to do it.
Once more: forgiveness or sharing the peace is not a sacrament. Jesus told us to do it and it shares his good news, but there’s no tangible thing along with it.
So what are our sacraments? Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
First they have stuff, the earthly sign. In baptism, that’s water. In communion, it’s bread and wine. (As a side note: these things are holy only because they go with the Word. Otherwise the water is just tap water and it could be a puddle or scummy lake water or from the toilet. The wine comes in a cheap ol’ grocery store jugs. And our breadbakers are sinners, just like the rest of us.)
Second, Jesus told us to do it. At the Supper, we repeat the story of Jesus instituting this meal, telling us, “Do this for the remembrance of me.” For baptism, it’s the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Third, these are good news. In communion, you are ingesting the embodiment of forgiveness. In baptism, you are washed clean as God’s beloved child. So the water carries the holy promise directly and solely to Annika Ellen in her baptism this morning. As you swallow the promise in bread and wine, you may know it is for the forgiveness of your sins. It comes to find you exactly where you need it. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you have the assurance of Jesus’ forgiving presence with you, of his death and resurrection for your sake.
That maybe addresses a question of who or what the sacraments are for. They are for you. Yet maybe we could also see that if it’s for forgiveness, then nobody should be excluded. This isn’t dependent on how well you understand it or how good you’ve been or how much a part of things you feel like you are. Jesus is offering himself for you. Although we excommunicate ourselves when we avoid the meal or don’t come to worship, it’s tough to imagine that Jesus would kick anybody out of communion.
That also raises a point that we may choose for children to be older before they receive communion, hoping that they understand it a bit more. But that’s our rule and not from Jesus. Again, he promises to be here for you no matter what.
So Henry asked about pancakes and syrup. He realizes this meal is special, and it is for him, even if he doesn’t understand everything that’s happening. But do any of us? That’s the point that got us started, that Jesus said the one who “eats the bread that comes down from heaven will not die.” Do we have any idea how to explain that? I don’t. But we trust it, we keep receiving it, we hope in it, we use it because it’s from God and for us.
That parallels baptism. We baptize infants. Annika will have no recollection of this day, but that doesn’t change God’s promise for her in those waters. The point will be that it’s there as a resource for her, a bedrock for her faith for every moment and situation to come. It’s for when she gets sick with an ear infection or when she says her first word or when she frustrates her parents or when she graduates from college or when she robs her 27th bank or when she has her own baby or when she’s in hospice. She’ll have the resource of baptism to trust that no moment is separated from God’s blessing, that she’s always held in God’s embrace, that the Spirit of Jesus is constantly working for life.
Before we turn toward that baptism, any quick questions on sacraments?
Hymn: Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters (ELW #445)
some great interjected questions:
–How do you think Jesus was received with the hard language of “eat my flesh?” (He was often provocative and pushed against us. By the end, the 5000 who enjoyed eating bread were gone and only the disciples left. He asked them if they wanted to leave, and they said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So we also get provoked and pushed against at church. If we’re only here for cake and snacks, we’d not like to be challenged in how we live. But if we realize we need this good news for our life…)
–We give Sunday School kids good news, but shouldn’t adults hear more law on how we need to act differently and reform our behavior? (Too often Sunday School is law and telling kids what they need to do to be like Jesus. They need more gospel. Also, we don’t control how the Holy Spirit uses law and gospel. If I say, I forgive you, you may hear it as relief or else an accusation that you did something wrong. If I say you are loved, you might rebel against that and say your aren’t loveable. If I say that you should stop oppressing your neighbors, that could be law if you were the abuser or it could be gospel, that God is on the side of ending oppression.)
–Sometimes I don’t understand this right away, but God reveals the message to me later. (Yes, there’s a lot of mystery on this, on how we hear it differently and it doesn’t have the same impact on all of us. And there’s a trajectory there, that somedays I’m just a lousy preacher and you’ll need to hear the next week.)
–What about re-baptism? (We don’t rebaptize. Once is enough. A verse in Ephesians talks about One Lord and One Baptism. Plus, this is God’s work. If we try to say, oh but I’m in a new denomination or I sinned since then or the pastor was a jerk or the water wasn’t the right temperature, if we claim the baptism wasn’t valid or good enough, that undermines God’s promise that you are already forgiven and nothing will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.)